BRINGING ETHICS TO BEAR
CONFERENCE STATEMENT: THE PROBLEM: As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, the concept of relationships - among individuals, families, communities, nations - is replacing the concept of rigid self-reliance, autarchy, and isolationism as a paradigm for human enterprise. Successful relationships cannot be fully legislated. They depend, in part, on mutual adherence to widely shared but unenforceable sets of values. Yet today, paradoxically, many fear that attention to these moral dimensions is waning.
Just as individuals cannot remain unaffected by their communities, so nations can no longer successfully opt out of the global context. Major transnational problems cannot be solved by single nations. Increasingly, individuals and nations need to find ethical ways to balance their own rights and entitlements with their obligations and responsibilities to others, and to bring ethical considerations to bear on every aspect of private and public relationships.
`MOST people are basically moral.'' That's the conclusion of Robert S. McNamara, former United States secretary of defense and World Bank president. Yet, he adds, ``We don't bring to a consideration of public-policy issues a moral foundation. My experience in public-policy debates has been that you are thought to be rather naive if you introduce the moral dimension.''
It is this paradox - the contradiction between the morality of private individuals and the amoral stance of public institutions - that, for many observers, characterizes the late 20th century.
By moral, Mr. McNamara means ``an understanding that our behavior - our national [and] our individual behavior - does affect other people, and that we have a responsibility to behave consistent with the basic rights of others.''
In particular, he stresses the ``immorality'' of global security strategies in which the superpowers ``place at risk the survival of other nations.'' He is equally concerned about global economic inequities, whereby rich nations consume ``a disproportionate share'' of the world's resources.
How central are such moral issues to humanity's survival?
Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky worries that ``the 21st century will not be'' unless morality becomes part of what he calls our ``practical, pragmatic, day-by-day things.'' Making morality practical, however, requires a commitment by individuals. And that depends on individual choice. Yet some of the severest criticism leveled at current ethics revolves around the issue of excessive individualism - a point raised by attorney Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
``We live in a country that promotes individual achievement, individual success,'' she says, ``and we [have] become the richest nation in the world. At the same time, once you touch that kind of success, it's hard to go back to create the republican virtues of truth and honesty and fellow-feeling.'' Ms. Townsend notes that it has become popular to blame individualism for present-day ``excesses of selfishness.'' But she adds that ``there are great things about individual liberty, and the ability to write and to think what you want.''
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni, agreeing, brings these two poles together. ``We need to recognize that both the society and the individual are essential to a morality which we can use in the next century,'' he says. ``If we could enter the next century with a wider recognition of that balance - and get away from either collectivistic excesses or the celebration of radical individualism - I think we'd be better for it.''
``The morality that we're talking about,'' says Radcliffe College president Matina Horner, consists of ``learning somehow how to exercise our role and responsibilities as trustees of the human and natural resources of the world community in which we live.'' Noting that ``mutual trusteeship'' may be ``a better word than morality,'' she asks, ``What are the ties that bring us together as trustees?''
She is also concerned about a lack of what she calls ``the intergenerational bonding'' that should create a sense of trusteeship among generations. Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, equally concerned, notes that the elderly, making up 12 percent of the US population, get 56 percent of the nation's entitlements, such as social security and medicare. He calls the powerful lobby of senior citizens ``the 800-pound gorilla in American politics.''
He worries about ``the sense of entitlement'' on the part of some senior citizens who feel they have earned all they receive in government subsidies. For the sake of clarity, he says, ``we ought to divide every social security check into two parts. No. 1 says, `This is what you get back because of what you invested.' It would be one-seventh of the check.'' The other six-sevenths, he says, would be labeled ``welfare from your children'' - money paid to support the elderly by those still working.
The attention paid to children, in fact, is widely seen as central to any set of ethical goals for the coming century. ``One of the moral considerations that unites us all, whether we're a developed nation or a developing nation,'' says Michael Hooker, chancellor of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, ``is our children.'' For that reason, he calls for ``a child's bill of rights,'' having common elements applicable to children everywhere, but tailored to specific conditions in different parts of the world. ``In developing nations,'' he says, ``it may pertain to nutrition, to child labor laws, to child servitude, and so forth. In all nations it would pertain to education, and in the developed nations especially there should be a very strong [emphasis on] transcultural education.''
Inherent in such transcultural education would be an awareness of living conditions in less fortunate nations - a kind of moral awareness that should help prompt action. ``In our part of the world,'' says Nigerian Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, quality of life appears to be determined by ``the amount of degradation, starvation, erosion of land, deterioration in agricultural production, and the uncertainty of rainfall.'' Yet crucial to quality of life is the ethical dimension. ``Is there a way,'' he asks, ``by which values, morality, can make within our nations [a sense of] sharing and caring?''
The solution, he says, lies in educating all the world's children - not only those in the developed nations - to be leaders of the 21st century. ``What sort of morality are we going to inculcate in them? Are they going to feel that they have responsibility only for their immediate environment, their immediate community? Or are they going to have a sense of mankind [that will] make them feel that what happens elsewhere in the universe affects them?''
On that point - the need to educate in a context of moral values - many observers agree. For some, the immediate need is simply for basic schooling. ``In my country,'' says Indonesian trade unionist Stella Maria, ``there is not yet compulsory formal education for the total population.''
For others, the fundamental third-world issue centers upon the quality of that formal education.``I think too often we confuse information with knowledge and technical expertise with wisdom,'' says Nazir Ahmad, a Bangladeshi graduate student at Stanford University. ``I think a lot of the time we talk about skills instead of trying to develop a perspective.''
``I'm reminded,'' he adds, ``of what Chairman Mao talked about in terms of education in most of the third world - that it mostly trains the memory and confines the mind.'' Instead, Mr. Ahmad says, the moral context of education should help students realize that ``you cannot have everything you want: There are choices and trade-offs that you have to make.''
And that sort of education, says Japanese philosopher Shuichi Kato, requires much more than technological prowess. As we move into the next century, he says, ``the major question is not how to develop technology but how to use technology.''
Since ``the technology doesn't teach us how to use the technology,'' he argues that ``the principle of schooling should be shifted from an increasingly strong emphasis on scientifically technological education to something else. You might call it humanities, but I would call it poetry or arts.''
The result, he says, would ``put the stress on a certain mental, poetical ability to appreciate seriously the lilies in the field.''
For Nigerian journalist Tommy Odemwingie, however, education must at least include a rudimentary understanding of technology. Too often in the developing world, he says, the attempt is made to apply ``a very advanced technology in a situation stuck in illiteracy. In the final analysis the people for whom technology is supposed to solve the problem don't even understand the technology.''
Education in the next century, says Townsend, should allow a greater appreciation of religion. She finds that intellectuals in the US - particularly those on the political left, who are ``usually interested in the kind of issues that we've raised'' - are characterized by ``their uncomfortableness with talking about God and morality. I find this very unfortunate, because so many people across the world care very deeply about God and religion. I think that we have to make it more possible to talk about God ... in schools. Our ethical traditions are not just republican traditions, not just the sectarian traditions, but really do come from a belief in God.''
If all of these ideas are to bear fruit, however, they need to be made applicable to what British columnist Katharine Whitehorn calls ``the only global culture we actually have, which is the commercial culture, the man in the blue suit.'' To instill a stronger idea of morality in 21st-century thinking, she says, ``We've somehow got to make businessmen feel that they gain some clout from moral behavior - not only on Sundays but in their business.
``I speak from the middle of a culture,'' columnist Whitehorn continues, ``which used to think that service was a good idea. Then it thought that communal effort was a good idea. At the moment we have gone totally over to the idea that the market economy is God. I think it will be a glad day when we retreat from [that idea].''
``I think it's the responsibility of business leaders to be sensitive to the public good,'' says McNamara. Recalling his experience at the Ford Motor Company, he notes that ``the auto industry had to be pulled screaming and hollering into safety, environment, and energy conservation. The auto industry should have led in addressing [those] problems.''
Would taking the lead in such ethical issues have jeopardized bottom-line considerations? ``I could take any one of those three and make a profit on it,'' says McNamara. ``You can merchandise safety. You can merchandise emission controls. You can merchandise energy conservation.''
Is the message of business ethics getting through to young people today? ``I worry about the young people in the graduate schools of business,'' says Douglas Fraser, who now teaches labor studies in several university programs. He often finds those students more interested in money and success, and less ``concerned about the world and its problems,'' than young people he's taught in other graduate programs.
Ahmad, however, sees promise among business-school students. Last year, he says, ``the course on ethics was the most subscribed class. I think there's an increasing recognition that, whether we like business or not, we somehow have to establish a partnership with business in order to deal with larger societal problems.''
Yet, as Shirley Williams warns, ``One of the things that characterizes the Western world is short-termism. Time and again, especially in the Anglo-American world, people are measured by extremely short-term criteria. It's particularly true of businessmen.''
As in business, so elsewhere. Dr. Horner talks of the enormous need for ``keeping sustained attention on ... issues. We have had a terrible history in this country in [not] keeping attention focused.''
That tendency to think in terms of cycles rather than steady progress also affects the US economy. ``I don't see how as a nation we could roll up the deficit we've been rolling up in the past seven years if we honestly believed that the future existed,'' says poet and novelist Brad Leithauser. ``If people as a group believed that, in 10 years, 10 years would have elapsed, and in 20 years, 20 years would have elapsed - if that elementary notion had penetrated people's minds, I don't think what we're doing would be considered acceptable.''
What, finally, should humanity do to reestablish the moral dimension in such a broad range of areas? ``Simply stated,'' says futurist Theodore Gordon, ``inculcate a reverence for the future.''
ACHIEVABLE GOALS for the year 2000 Increase awareness among individuals and nations of the moral dimensions of behavior. Articulate and support codes of ethics for international business. Develop educational curricula that reflect the realities of global interdependence. Teach a reverence for the future. Increase awareness of the holistic nature of global problems and their possible solutions. As the world moves toward material sufficiency, focus more attention on the spiritual dimensions of life.
HOW it could be done: Establish compulsory basic education on a global scale. Within the education systems of each nation, teach the values required both to realize individual potential and to establish meaningful interpersonal relations and sound global policies. Encourage creativity by balancing sound technological education with strong emphasis on the arts and humanities. Establish a child's bill of rights. Promote community service as a means of inculcating a sense of caring and sharing. Within each individual and nation, and among individuals and nations, balance entitlements and obligations in political, economic, cultural, social, and legal spheres. Support the development of a global syllabus of issues that affect every individual, tailored to local needs but holistic in conception. Work to channel human energies - including moral outrage over political tyranny, racial discrimination, and greed - into constructive reform.